Introduced in 1976, the Volkswagen Golf GTI was not the first sporty family car nor even the best, but it defined an entire genre of practical performance cars: the ever-popular hot hatch. This week, a brief history of the Volkswagen Golf (Rabbit) and Golf GTI.
BACK TO FRONT
Although the Volkswagen Beetle was at the height of its American popularity in the late sixties, VW’s fortunes in the European market were flagging. Under the conservative leadership of managing director Heinz Nordhoff, Volkswagen had a hard time looking past the Beetle’s rear-engined, air-cooled format. Its new Type 4 cars had a few modern features, but they were still anachronisms in a market turning increasingly to front-engine, front-wheel-drive compacts like the BMC Mini.
Breaking the rear-engine habit required a drastic cultural shift for VW, which was abetted by Volkswagen’s 1969 acquisition of a controlling interest in NSU. At the time, NSU was hard at work on the K70, a water-cooled, front-engined, FWD compact, which had been highly publicized, but not yet introduced because of NSU’s financial problems. VW’s new managing director, Kurt Lotz, who had succeeded Nordhoff in the spring of 1968, decided to refine the K70 design and produce it as a Volkswagen, building it at a new plant in Salzgitter, southwest of VW’s Wolfsburg headquarters.
The K70 was not a great commercial success, lasting only until 1975, but it gave VW its first practical experience with water cooling and front-wheel drive. Thus emboldened, Lotz ordered the development of a new, mass-market FWD car, known as project EA337. He commissioned Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign — known for exotic sports cars like the Lamborghini Miura — to style it.
Lotz was forced to resign in the fall of 1971, but his successor, former Audi-NSU director Rudolf Leiding, continued the EA337 project, which was now the company’s highest priority.
The EA337 finally went into production in March 1974 as the Volkswagen Golf. (VW insisted that it was named not for the sport, but for the gulf stream, just as the Golf-derived Scirocco coupe was named for the desert wind.) Wearing crisp styling by Giugiaro, the Golf was a thoroughly modern subcompact featuring unibody construction, a transverse, water-cooled engine, rack-and-pinion steering, and a choice of three- or five-door hatchback bodies.
Hatchbacks were not a new idea by any means; the rear liftgate had its roots in the sedan deliveries and commerciales of the thirties, as well as oddities like the Austin A40 Countryman of 1959. Nonetheless, three- and five-door hatchbacks skyrocketed in popularity in the early 1970s. The rear liftgate lent itself well to the new “supermini” class, exemplified by the Fiat 127 and Autobianchi A112, giving small cars a level of cargo-carrying versatility exceeding that of many larger vehicles.
The Volkswagen Golf offered a range of four-cylinder engines: the newly designed 801 and 827 series, featuring cast-iron blocks, aluminum heads, and a single belt-driven overhead cam. The base engine was 1,098 cc (67 cu. in.) with a modest 50 hp DIN (37 kW), linked to a four-speed manual transmission, while the top option was 1,457 cc (89 cu. in.) with 70 hp (51 kW). The Golf’s front suspension used MacPherson struts, while the rear was a novel “torsion beam,” linking two trailing arms with a transverse beam that doubled as both structural member and anti-roll bar. Front disc brakes were standard. None of this was extraordinary from a technological standpoint (the Simca 1100, for example, had these features in 1967), but it took Volkswagen to the first rank of European small cars.
AN INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS
The Volkswagen Golf went on sale in Europe in the summer of 1974 and proved to be an immediate success. It was not without its problems, but it was nearly as fun to drive as Alfa Romeo’s Alfasud, and far more reliable and better built than many of its European rivals. Volkswagen sold its millionth Golf less than three years after its introduction.
The Golf came to America in early 1975, carrying the biggest available engine (1,471 cc, 90 cu. in.) and a new name: Volkswagen Rabbit. The Rabbit never became as beloved or ubiquitous as the Beetle, although it sold relatively well. Unfortunately, inflation and currency fluctuations meant that Volkswagen lost about $100 on every car sold in the U.S. In an attempt to reduce costs, Volkswagen took the unprecedented step of launched an American factory. The new plant, located in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, was the first foreign-owned auto plant in the U.S. since the 1920s. It would not be the last.
TURNING UP THE HEAT
The standard Volkswagen Golf was already entertaining to drive, particularly in 1,471 cc form, and it was clear that much more could be extracted from it. In the spring of 1973, a group of VW engineers organized by test engineer Alfons Löwenberg, began development of a “Sportgolf” as a side project. The engineers found an ally in PR boss Anton Konrad, who had been a Formula V driver earlier in his life, and understood the publicity value of racing versions of family cars like the Mini Cooper and Ford Lotus Cortina. Despite that support, the engineers decided to keep the project below management’s radar. The development costs of the standard Golf were already daunting enough; the group suspected that if their superiors knew what they were doing, they would shut it down.
After they developed a viable prototype, engineer Hermann Hablitzel decided to mention the Sportgolf to his boss, development chief Ernst Fiala, who told them they were out of their minds. Neither Konrad nor the engineers were dissuaded, however, and they kept working on the project in secret, using a Scirocco coupe (which shared its platform with the new Golf) as a development mule.
In the spring of 1975, about a year after the Golf entered production, the engineering crew showed off their Scirocco-bodied chassis mule on Volkswagen’s Ehra-Lessien test track, with impressive results. By then, the Golf was off to a good start in the marketplace and VW’s sales organization was looking for ways to maintain customer interest. They were particularly interested in having something new to show off at that fall’s Frankfurt Motor Show. In due course, the “Sportgolf” became an official project in May 1975. Audi engineer Herbert Schuster was transferred to Volkswagen to supervise it.
A production prototype — now dubbed Volkswagen Golf GTI — made its public debut at the Frankfurt show on September 11, 1975. Public response was enthusiastic and a production version went on sale the following summer.
ANATOMY OF A HOT HATCH: THE VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI MK 1
The Mk 1 Volkswagen Golf GTI was a straightforward but thorough revamp of the basic Golf package. The engine was a 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) version of VW’s “827” four with higher-compression Heron heads, a hotter cam, and Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection. Originally created for the Audi 80, the 1,588 cc engine produced 110 hp DIN (81 kW), more than enough for the 1,860 lb (845 kg) GTI. To match it, the suspension was lowered and stiffened and the front brakes were replaced by vented discs for better cooling.
The Golf GTI was noisy and rode stiffly, but it had brisk performance. VW claimed 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) in 9.0 seconds and a top speed of 113 mph (182 km/h). This proved optimistic in third-party testing, but not by much — some testers managed 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a fraction over eight seconds, better than a Datsun 280ZX or a Porsche 924, either of which was far more expensive. Thanks to its light weight and uprated suspension, the GTI was as nimble as an Alfasud or Autobianchi A112 Abarth and considerably faster in a straight line. The Golf GTI was also a decided improvement on aging sports cars like the MGB.
More importantly, the GTI sacrificed little of the Golf’s practicality, which wasn’t always the case with high-strung sports versions of family cars. The GTI’s fuel economy was nearly as good as a Golf’s and if one could accept the stiff ride and a higher level of mechanical noise, there was no reason it couldn’t be owned by a one-car family. Better still, it was affordable. In Germany, it started at 13,850 DM (about $5,500 at contemporary exchange rates), which the German automotive press noted was some 5,000 DM ($2,000) less than the cheapest rival offering comparable performance.
AMERICA LAST: THE VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT GTI
Volkswagen’s sales organization did not see a big market for a Volkswagen Rabbit GTI, offering a conservative sales projection of 5,000 cars a year. The GTI’s combination of performance and practicality was appealing enough, however, that it did far better than that; Volkswagen had moved nearly 60,000 of them by 1979.
Despite the Golf GTI’s international popularity, it was not offered in the U.S. Volkswagen’s U.S. sales strategy was shaped by an influx of former GM executives, hired around the time the Westmoreland plant opened. Thanks to their influence, the Volkswagen Rabbit became progressively more Americanized, with softened suspension, softer seats, and color-keyed interior trim, often in dubious taste. Following the 1979 energy crisis, a substantial number of American Volkswagens were sold with the 1,471 cc (90 cu. in.) diesel engine, which sacrificed performance for fuel economy. Volkswagen of America saw no need for a GTI.
Not everyone was so convinced. In November 1981, Motor Trend published an open letter pleading with VW of America to create a U.S. version of the European Golf GTI. Other American critics felt that the decision to withhold models like the GTI epitomized the faulty logic that was rapidly eroding Volkswagen’s U.S. sales.
Jim Fuller, the vice president of Volkswagen of America’s Porsche + Audi Division, agreed. Fuller was an automotive enthusiast and he felt that VW was doing itself no favors by diluting its Germanic character. VWoA created a new position for him — Vice President, Volkswagen Division — and assigned him to turn things around.
The first sign of Fuller’s initiative was the Americanized Rabbit GTI that debuted that fall as a 1983 model. It featured a version of the 1,781 cc (109 cu. in.) engine introduced in Europe in 1981, but detuned to 90 hp SAE (67 kW) rather than the European engine’s 112 hp DIN (82 kW). The suspension was similar to that of the German car, albeit retuned to account for the Rabbit’s greater weight. With less power and more mass, the Rabbit GTI was naturally slower than the Golf GTI; in November 1982, Car and Driver clocked it from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 9.7 seconds with a top speed of 104 mph (167 km/h), which compared to 8.1 seconds and 112 mph (180 km/h) for the European version. Still, that was quicker than a contemporary Pontiac Firebird Trans Am 305 (4,999 cc) and at $7,990 was both cheaper and thriftier. The Rabbit GTI was also fully two seconds quicker to 60 mph than a standard Rabbit.
Even if it was slower, the American GTI was just as agile and fun to drive as its German counterpart. The enthusiast publications that had hoped for a federalized GTI were ecstatic.
Other manufacturers were by no means oblivious to the success of the Golf GTI, and by the time it arrived in America, it had a growing array of competitors, including the Ford Escort XR3, the Mitsubishi-built Dodge Colt Turbo, the MG Metro, the Lancia Delta HF, the Peugeot 205 GTi, and the Renault 5 Alpine/Gordini Turbo. By the mid-eighties, nearly every manufacturer in this market segment had at least one “hot hatch.”
The introduction of Group B rally racing in 1982 added fuel to the fire, spawning a host of technologically ambitious homologation specials. Many of these bore only the vaguest resemblance to the mundane family hatchbacks on which they were based, but they were pursued with the same enthusiasm that American manufacturers once lavished on NASCAR or Trans Am. Many of these rivals were cheaper than the Volkswagen Golf GTI, some were faster, and some offered features VW did not, but the GTI remained the standard-bearer for the hot hatch market.
The second-generation Volkswagen Golf bowed in August 1983. Inevitably, development boss Ernst Fiala was reluctant to meddle with success, opting for a cautious evolution of the original. In true Detroit fashion, the “Mk 2″ Golf was significantly bigger than the Mk 1: 6.7 inches (170 mm) longer, 2.2 inches (55 mm) wider, on a longer, 97.2-inch (2,470mm) wheelbase. Weight rose by more than 165 pounds (75 kg) on European cars, a hefty 250 lb (113 kg) on U.S. versions.
Although the VW board considered 10 different styling proposals, including one from Giugiaro, they finally selected the one developed in-house, a cautious update of the original. Even VW design director Herbert Shäfer conceded that it looked somewhat conservative. Volkswagen spent $770 million on the new version, but only $195 million of that was for the car; the rest was to modernize the factory in Wolfsburg.
Naturally, the Golf GTI returned, now offered in both three-door and five-door forms. European models had a carryover 1,781 cc engine, their extra weight making them somewhat slower than before. The American Golf GTI had a new 100 horsepower (75 kW) version, which wasn’t quite enough to compensate for the increased weight of the federalized Mk 2. On the plus side, both U.S. and European Golf GTIs now had four-wheel disc brakes.
That performance deficit was not enough to dampen sales of the GTI or the Golf on which it was based, which became Europe’s best-selling car in the mid-eighties. Furthermore, the weakness of the initial car was soon rectified. In 1986, the basic Golf GTI was supplemented by a new 16V model with a 16-valve cylinder head that boosted the 1,781 cc engine to 139 hp DIN (102 kW). European models were now capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in under eight seconds and a top speed of around 130 mph (209 km/h). In 1989, there was a limited-production Golf GTI Rallye model with a 160 hp (118 kW) supercharged engine and Syncro all-wheel drive, followed in 1990 by a FWD G60 model with the same engine. There were also a few Limited models with all-wheel drive and a hotter supercharged engine.
LOSING THE PLOT
The second-generation U.S. Golf GTI — now called Golf rather than Rabbit — failed to win the hearts of American buyers. None of the supercharged or AWD models were ever sold in the States, leaving a milder 16V version with 123 hp SAE (92 kW) as the top performer. It was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 8.5 seconds and a top speed of more than 115 mph (185 km/h), but by decade’s end, it was falling behind the pace of the latest U.S.-market sporty cars in both performance and refinement. Worse, American Volkswagens were not built to the same standards as their European counterparts, suffering a host of reliability problems that further eroded Volkswagen’s once-sterling reputation for quality.
Then, too, American buyers were cool to the Mk 2 Golf’s boxy styling. In the seventies, when the Volkswagen Rabbit first debuted, most U.S.-market cars of any size were boxy, rectangular things — often direct imitations of the Golf — but by the eighties, the trend was toward sleeker coupes and sedans. The Golf’s packaging was still superb, but American customers had come to associate boxy hatchbacks with the grim austerity of the late-seventies energy crisis, an era many were eager to forget. Even the sporting hatchbacks available in the U.S., like the Acura Integra, Ford Probe, or Mitsubishi Eclipse/Eagle Talon, were rapidly taking on more coupe-like proportions.
With high prices and styling that seemed out of touch with American tastes, Volkswagen of America floundered. As sales dropped, the Westmoreland plant ended up at less than half its capacity. VW finally shut it down in September 1988, earning great enmity from workers and their union. (Ironically, by then, Japanese manufacturers like Honda and Toyota had begun to establish their own “transplant” factories in the U.S., which would prove far more successful.) That fall, Jim Fuller and VWoA’s marketing director were killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, leaving the company’s management adrift. By 1991, U.S. sales had dipped under 100,000 units a year, and by 1993, they were down to a dismal 44,000.
MORE OF THE SAME
If VWoA was waiting for salvation from the Mk 3 Golf, it was not forthcoming. Although Volkswagen reportedly spent $1.5 billion on the third-generation Golf, after selling 12.6 million Mk 1s and Mk 2s, the company was taking no chances with the familiar formula. The Mk 3 Volkswagen Golf, introduced for 1992, followed the same pattern as the Mk 2: a bigger, heavier, sleeker version of its predecessor. That was fine for Europe, where the Golf was the established gold standard for C-segment family cars, but it did nothing to help the U.S. organization. (Ironically, the revival of VW’s American business required turning the Golf into a New Beetle, but that’s another story.)
The four-cylinder Mk 3 Golf GTI was looking rather anemic thanks to unchanged power and extra weight, so Volkswagen added a new six-cylinder model, powered by VW’s unique VR6 engine. The VR6 was a V6 with its two cylinder banks set only 15 degrees apart, close enough to allow both to share a single cylinder head. With 174 hp DIN (128 kW), it gave the GTI’s straight-line performance a shot in the arm, but it didn’t help handling that seemed flabby compared to the latest competition.
Much the same was true of the Mk 4 Golf, launched in 1997. As new VW chief Ferdinand Piëch strove to take Volkswagen up-market, the Mk 4 Golf GTI offered exceptional refinement and luxury with ample power, but the memory of the nimble Mk 1 was growing dim. It also suffered in-house competition from Volkswagen’s SEAT and Skoda brands, which offered nearly identical mechanical packages — and sometimes prettier styling — for lower prices.
Volkswagen tried to rectify things with the Mk 5 Golf GTI, launched at the Frankfurt show in 2003. The Mk 5 again offered with either a turbocharged four-cylinder engine or a VR6 with up to 250 hp (184 kW). Stylistically, the Mk 5 remained unmistakably a Golf, but it had grown quite zaftig; the AWD six-cylinder R32 tipped the scales at around 3,400 pounds (1,538 kg), nearly twice the mass of a Mk 1 Golf. Still, with a new multilink independent rear suspension (replacing the old torsion beam), it had markedly better handling than the Mk 4, taking the GTI back to the forefront of its class.
Earlier this year, Volkswagen unveiled the Mk 6 Golf GTI, which is again an extremely conservative redesign of the Mk 5, with slightly more power and similarly hefty curb weight. The four-cylinder GTI still has a curb weight of over 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg), although it is alleged to be both quicker and greener than its predecessor. In Europe, it will face a host of formidable C-segment competitors, including the Peugeot 308 GT, Ford Focus RS, Renault Clio RS, Subaru Impreza WRX STI, Opel Astra OPC, Honda Civic Type R, and its own Seat Leon Cupra sibling. There is also now a thriving market in smaller B-segment hot hatches like the VW Polo GTI, RenaultSport Twingo RS, and Peugeot 207 GT Turbo.
WITHER THE (ORIGINAL) HOT HATCH?
The Mk 6 Golf and GTI are likely to remain niche items in the U.S. market. Even in Europe, the Ford Focus and Opel/Vauxhall Astra are sorely testing the Golf’s traditional dominance of the C-segment. Although VW’s U.S. sales are better than they were in the early nineties, American buyers still prefer the four-door Jetta sedan to the three- and five-door Golf. It’s significant that only Volkswagen, Ford, and Mazda still offer C-segment hatchbacks in the U.S.; most other automakers gave up offering North American versions of that body style years ago. Other than the Golf GTI, there are still a few hot hatches in the States, like Mazda’s Mazdaspeed3, but many past examples, like the Honda Civic Si three-door or Acura Integra, have disappeared or been replaced with notchback coupes or sedans.
Why? Cost is one factor. As the size and sophistication of the hot hatch has grown, so have prices. In the U.S., a 2009 GTI three-door has a base MSRP of $23,930, $1,100 more with the DSG semi-automatic gearbox. A Subaru Impreza WRX five-door starts at $26,190, while the hotter STI is over $35,000 — clearly not economy-car prices. By the nineties, insurance companies had also caught on to the hot-hatch game and started slapping punitive surcharges onto any compact with a “GT” badge, even if it had less horsepower than any number of mundane family sedans. Fuel, maintenance, and insurance are more costly, as well. Where a Rabbit GTI could return 26-27 mpg (8.7 to 9.0 L/100 km) in routine driving, a modern GTI can dip under 18 mpg (13 L/100 km) in city traffic — and on premium fuel, to boot.
Naturally, these factors are important in Europe and Japan, too, where fuel is even more expensive and the cars even costlier. The difference is that in the States, three- and five-door hatchbacks still have the stigma of low-end cars for college students. Here, it takes a special kind of eye to appreciate the value of a GTI or STI badge, especially when the same money could get you a bigger sedan and/or a more prestigious badge. (We also cannot overlook VWoA’s record for reliability and customer service, which in recent years have been off-putting. In Europe, buyers will still pay a premium for the VW badge, but customers on this side of the Atlantic are more reticent.)
Even if the hot hatch does see a revival with a new generation of American buyers, we’re not likely to see the likes of the simple, tossable, frugal Mk 1 GTI again. It could be said that the game has simply moved on. Even subcompacts without any sporting pretensions, like the Honda Jazz/Fit and Mazda2, are about as quick as an early GTI and nearly as nimble while offering amenities that a Mk 1 Golf owner could scarcely imagine. Modern hot hatches are faster and more polished than ever, but the giggle-inducing immediacy of the first GTI appears to be a thing of the past, which is a shame for anyone who remembers how much fun the original could be.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources included Fred Dillinger, “VW Golf/Rabbit Sneak Preview,” Car and Driver Vol. 29, No. 6 (December 1983), p. 59; Annamaria Lösch, ed., World Cars 1979 (Rome: L’Editrice dell’Automobile LEA/New York: Herald Books, 1979); Graham Robson and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Volkswagen Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1996); Volkswagen AG, “The Volkswagen GTI – The True Story Behind Number 1,” reprinted at VW Vortex, 25 October 2004, www.billswebspace. com, accessed 30 May 2009, and “History of the origins of the first Golf GTI,” n.d., vwphaetonfan.blogspot. com/ 2009/03/golf-gti-in-depth.html, accessed 30 May 2009; Mark Wan, “Volkswagen Golf Mark IV,” AutoZine.org, 17 October 2002, www.autozine. org/Archive/ Volkswagen/old/Golf_Mk4.html, accessed 3 June 2009), “Volkswagen Golf V,” 1 January 2007, www.autozine. org/ Archive/Volkswagen/old/Golf_Mk5.html, accessed 30 May 2009, and “Volkswagen Golf VI,” 2 June 2009, www.autozine. org/Archive/ Volkswagen/new/Golf_VI.html, accessed 3 June 2009). Additional details came from Wikipedia®: en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Volkswagen_Golf_Mk2, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Volkswagen_Golf_Mk3, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Volkswagen_Golf_Mk4, accessed 3 June 2009.Motor Trend‘s plea for a U.S. GTI appeared in the November 1981 issue of that magazine. That article is reprinted in VW Golf GTI 1976-1991 Limited Edition Extra, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 2005).
We also consulted the following period road tests: Philip Turner, “Injected VWs top 110 mph,” Motor 19 June 1976; “AutoTest: Volkswagen Golf GTI,” Autocar 12 March 1977; “The Golf GTI: A superb 110 m.p.h. VW,” Motor Sport March 1977; “Test extra: Volkswagen Golf GI: Still sparklingly smooth,” Autocar 4 April 1981; Jim McCraw, “Road Test: Golf GTI,” Motor Trend November 1981; Rich Ceppos, “Preview Test: Volkswagen Rabbit GTI: The car we’ve all been waiting for,” Car and Driver November 1982; “RoadTest: Volkswagen Golf GTi,” Motor 27 November 1982; “Volkswagen Rabbit GTI: Street racer in a bunny suit,” Road & Track November 1982; “CAR Test: VW Golf 1,8 GTI, Five-Speed,” CAR South Africa January 1983; Mark Hughes, “Playing better Golf,” Autosport January 1983; “RoadTest: Volkswagen Golf GTI,” Motor 5 May 1984; “Volkswagen GTI: A pocket pistol to win the West, and everywhere else,” Car and Driver March 1985; “Road Test: Volkswagen Golf GTi 16V,” The Motor 13 December 1986; “Road Impressions: VW Golf GTI 16V,” Motor Sport February 1987; “Volkswagen GTI 16V: The long-awaited 4-valve-head sports sedan,” Road & Track June 1987; Rich Ceppos, “Volkswagen GTI 16V: Fighting the good fight,” Car and Driver August 1987; Mark Harrop, “Master stroke,” Autocar 13 March 1991; Tiff Needell, “Four wheels good…” Autocar 21 March 1991; and John Evans, “Buying Used: Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk II,” Autocar 16 October 1996, all of which are reprinted in VW Golf GTI 1976-1991 Limited Edition Extra.
This article’s title was suggested by dialogue from the comic book We3, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely, which was originally published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint in 2004.
For the record, the author owns a Mazda3, albeit not a hatchback or the Mazdaspeed version, and years ago was compensated by a Mazda marketing agency for participating in a couple of owner focus groups related to that model.